Torta di mele

Autumn is unquestionably here. The air is crisp, the leaves are turning. The tomatoes, zucchini, peppers and berries that crowded the farmers market stands all summer long have given way to squash, potatoes, carrots and onions. And there are apples – bushels and bushels of apples. With the cool weather comes the instinct to fire up the oven again, awakening it after its summer hibernation, and bake. This Wall Street Journal food article about a Tuscan apple cake reminded us of Italy and inspired us to make our own version of torta di mele.

Torta di mele is a classic Italian homemade treat. As is so often true, recipes vary. Stefano’s mom uses more flour and fewer apples, resulting in a delicate, springy cake. Our sister-in-law Valentina and her mom Marinella use less flour and more apples, which makes a more dense, almost pudding-like cake.  Our recipe is somewhere in between.

Despite these variations, a few things are true of all authentic torta di mela recipes. While our apple crisps, pies and cobblers are heavily seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom, no spices are used in the torta di mele. Only freshly squeezed lemon juice and lemon zest give the cake a light, delicate taste, and not-too-much sugar lets the natural sweetness of the apples come through.

Use Golden Delicious apples; their flavor, consistency and moisture level are perfect for this cake.

700g Golden Delicious apples, peeled and sliced thinly.
Juice of one lemon
Zest of one lemon
3 eggs
1/2 cup (one stick) butter, softened
1 cup whole milk
200 g sugar (1 cup)
250 g flour (1 and 3/4 cup)
1 pouch Pane degli Angeli* (or substitute 1 teaspoon baking soda)

*Pane degli Angeli is an Italian leavening agent lightly sweetened with vanilla. It is a common ingredient in many Italian baked goods. If you decide to buy some, search Amazon or another online gourmet foods vendor for “Lievito Pane degli Angeli.”

Preheat the oven to 350°.  Butter and flour a 9″ or 10″ round cake pan, preferably a springform pan.  Set aside.

Core, peel and thinly slice the apples, and place them into a bowl.  Squeeze the juice of one lemon over the apples.  Stir and let rest.

Beat the eggs and sugar with a mixer on high speed for 5 minutes, until the mixture is light and airy.  Warm the butter until it is very soft but not melted and add it to the eggs and sugar, along with the milk and the zest of one lemon.  Stir in the butter, milk and lemon zest.

If you use Pane degli Angeli, pass it through a small strainer, such as a tea strainer, to eliminate any small clumps, and add it to the batter.  If you use baking soda, add it now.  Add the flour, and fold the dry ingredients gently into into the batter, taking care not to over-stir.  Add the apples and mix carefully until coated.

Pour the batter into your buttered and floured pan.  Arrange slices of apple around the top surface of the cake, and bake at 350° for 50-60 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.  If you wish, turn on the broiler for a few minutes at the end of cooking in order to give the top a golden brown color.

Serve warm or at room temperature for dessert, with afternoon coffee,  or even for breakfast.